Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Countries of the Mind

There's a book by science-fiction author Greg Bear called "Queen of Angels." In the book one of the characters is a psychologist who develops  technique of deep-level therapy in which he enters the mind of his patients in order to correct their disorders - much like the central concept of the film "The Cell," which I believe "borrowed" the idea from "Queen of Angels." Anyway, the interiors of peoples' minds are referred to by the psychologist as the Country of the Mind, or simply, the Country.

I always liked this idea, as well as the name, although I prefer "landscape of the mind." The reason I bring this up is because I've been thinking a lot lately about globalisation, the merging of cultures, colonisation and the like. I've also been thinking about a variation on the Country of the Mind idea, that is, not countries of the mind, as such, but countries of the mind.
I'm thinking here primarily about the mental or memory versions we have of certain places we've lived or visited. For me, my favourite country is the Cape Town of my childhood. That Cape Town is a dream for me, a collection of smells, sensations, impressions, music (see the below post for a link to some), stories, myths, and memories I can't always be sure are my own. Truth be told, it's my favourite place in the world. For years, while I lived in England, my version of Cape Town soothed and comforted me, locked away as it is in a time and space of my own making. I'm not sure why I thought so, but I felt that Cape Town would always have that kind of static, small-town feel, that slightly backward, quirky, almost naive character, flung-out as it is at the edge of a vast continent. It was a huge shock to my system when I came back and experienced a vibrant, progressive, connected, culturally sophisticated and media-savvy city. And I'd been gone for less than four years. It seemed that I was now the backward, quirky and naive one, slightly bewildered at the speed at which Cape Town had in many ways "caught up" to some of the most culturally vibrant cities in the world. Cape Town and it's people - most notably the people I had left behind, the people I had grown up with - had progressed with the city and I felt like I was the one standing still, holding on to my version of Cape Town for dear life. I tried for years after that to keep up, to "get with it," but to no avail. I learned to acknowledge and respect Cape Town for what it actually is, what it had become and where it was going, but I couldn't see myself in that picture. Seems part of me is terminally provincial - and I think somewhat romantic too - seeking the small, quirky and backward in the world. And yet I'm convinced that there is some validity to my choice - and it's very much a choice. My Cape Town no longer exists...except on the back of the howling south-easter, riding the table cloth as it rolls across the mountain; on the sounds of the fog-horn on a misty evening and the smell of fish and diesel heavy in the air; in the sound of the imam singing the call to prayer, echoing out from the Bo Kaap in the early morning; and in the sound of the Klopse singing the old songs, calling me back to memories that aren't mine.

This leads me to another topic, that of The Wave, but that's a post for another day...

I'll leave you instead with something I wrote just before I left:

On the edge

This city is blind
and its people spectres,
living dreams which shimmer
like silk and flicker
in and out of existence
at the whim of Light.

The longer I stay here,
on this sandy, rocky outcropping,
this land of my making,
the more I look and feel
like a tourist, a weary traveller
dancing to the rhythm of the constant question:
“Where are you from?”

Ghosting through the baked-brick
and tree-lined avenues of the Bowl,
the grey-and-yellow stained snakes
of the train lines and the slick
black ribbons of road that scar the peninsula,
I dance, trying to answer this question.

These avenues, these ways through
and across this enchanted dagger of land
entice me always;
they interrupt my sleep
and invade my thoughts.
       The contours that they describe and
accentuate with their passage
plunge me  into dangerous depths
of feeling, deep as the height
of the mountains they avoid,
cold as the oceans that hold them.

And yet all of this is still surface,
the Light touch on top of things, hiding,
masking the deeper parts which go deeper still.

There are secrets here that I can’t see
because I’m blind,
can’t see because I’ve grown accustomed
to the shallow depth of the surface
and sing songs and dance and tell stories
instead of searching, instead of working
to find out the proper resonance.

Like a step remove, my home eludes me;
it’s so potently present and available
but I wander in fits of despair,
             going always astray.
I try to capture the wings of this bird
with words, try to clip them,
but all I ever come away with is a whisper,
the wish of a feather whisked away by the wind;
    and empty hands are my only treasures,
    spooks and spectres my only friends…

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